Many of the great saints and founders of prominent apostolic religious congregations in the Church (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola etc.) have been quoted as saying “the world is my cloister” or “the world is my monastery.” Truly this represented for them in their own times a cosmic shift from the concept of consecrated religious life as being lived behind a wall, or at the very least in a singular place. The strength and vibrancy of their communities and their spiritualities spreading throughout the Church and the Globe testify to the continual need of their visions within the Church.
In the twenty first century the Canons Regular of Premontre continue our 900 year tradition of responding to the same gospel call to spread the love of Christ in a subtly different way. Although many of us may be accused, and rightly so, of being workaholics engaged in a myriad of ever changing, ever growing ministries to the people of good will who surround our communities, for us spreading the gospel is not singularly driven out into the world but it draws the world into us.
Yes, we are apostolic as many younger congregations are. We perform and live valuable gospel-driven ministries responding to the call of Jesus and the mission of the Apostles. However, we also live the ancient vita apostolica in a mode of geographic stability. That is to say we hold all things in common as the early apostles did. It can be said that we not only hold all things in common, but we posses nothing at all for we have been gifted with many blessings from our Loving Creator by whom we have been called to be stewards of these gifts on behalf of God and His people.
Beyond the confines of our monasteries we return these gifts to God. Our talents, our time, our ability to allow God to work through us, our wills, and our capacity for and our desire to love those we serve is a corporate statement of this radical sharing. Within that, however, there is the lesser-known sharing that is increasingly prophetic given the context of our fast-paced, ever changing, distracting and sometimes shallow contemporary society. That is we share and give the beauty of place and stability that our life represents to those who come among us in our monastic homes.
Canons have a long history of opening the doors of their abbeys to the world functioning as parishes, as places for prayer and devotion, as retreats and sources of silence, solitude and renewal. That we continue to this day in a profound way that I believe we may even take for granted.
Of what exactly do I speak? We live in a tension struggling for balance between the two fundamental gospels calls to encounter, minister to and enlighten the world, and to abandon the world for the sake of the inner journey. For us there is no dichotomous mutual exclusivity between these two poles, but rather we live them as a holistic expression of our Christian spirituality. Simply put, we do not only seek to touch lives and further the Gospel by encountering others in the world. We also seek these ends by welcoming the world in to encounter us, our rhythm of life and the sacred holy places in which we live.
This struck me in a powerful way several weeks ago. Before my parents moved out of state they came to spend their last few nights in New Mexico with us at the Priory of Santa Maria de la Vid. Although the stress and hassles of moving, purchasing a new house, saying goodbye to friends and a city that had been home for over thirty years etc. was hanging low and heavy upon them, the environment and energy of this place soothed their souls and stirred their spirits in unexpected ways that inspired them to have their final goodbyes with their friends in our humble retreat center rather than back in the city.
I was a little leery to lead tours of this sacred place with friends of the family who I know felt hurt or abandoned by the Church or who had become disillusioned and frustrated with experiences and perceptions of organized religion. I did not want an afternoon or evening in a monastery, within the confines of an institution, to open old wounds or confirm past suspicions.
Needless to say I humbly availed our guests to our structures new and old, our magnificent natural desert landscape and our sacred art. I should have trusted in the benevolent grace that flows through this place. In the groups, small though they were, I could sense initial hesitation and tentative responses. However, as the visitors from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life began to take in that which is present here there could be sensed in the glimmer of their eyes, the inquisitive conversation, the spring in their step and the excitement in their voice that something about this place was touching them.
It became apparent how powerful a sacred place can be in silently and subtly convey the tenants of our faith and tradition. It can move the heart, it can evangelize, it can energize, it can inspire. Ultimately it can heal and it can call women and men back to God in a way they had forgotten or maybe never knew. It is a sacramental that speaks to the grace of God, a medium through with the heart can be touched, touched if one only takes the initiative to reach for God by coming to a sacred place. Many may be unaware for what it is their heart is yearning, or that it even is. It is in a sacred place that grace can stir the heart to desire, to know and to receive.
It struck me how much I have begun to take for granted, how I find it normative to see the mighty southwestern sun rising over the silhouette of the Sandia Mountains every morning as I stroll to sing God’s praises; how much I have come to expect to be embraced by layers of sacred geometry in the spaces in which I pray; how I think nothing of having at my reach the largest theological library in the State of New Mexico. Now I can see myself not as a resident of this place, but as one of the many individuals called to live here in a special way so that others may come to know both the expanse and the embrace of God in inexplicable ways.
As our priory continues to evolve older and increasingly inadequate structures see their end and new buildings rise from the desert sands. Contemporary forms, traditional southwestern motifs, asian influences and vibrant colors coalesce to form a campus rooted in the ancient traditions of our Order and our Church while looking forward to what it may mean to live in our sacred place for others.
The beauty of this place, the vast skies, the distant vistas, the barren desert, all speak to and draw out the apophatic encounter with God (to speak of God in negation) while the meticulously designed structures, the myriad of artistic expressions, the wildlife, and the people who live here all witness to that cataphatic reality (to speak of what God is) of our Divine Creator.
After having spent time now in our beautiful mother house of St. Norbert Abbey, my own deeply moving priory of Santa Maria de la Vid and Daylesford Abbey nestled in the forests and hills of the Philadelphia suburbs, I understand more than ever the real necessity of sacred space set apart. Our homes are not simply dwelling places for our bodies. They are sacramental sources of nourishment for our souls. What sets them apart is that they exist to nourish the souls of all yearning to know God and to know Divine Live.
More importantly, they nourish the world. While others were rushing out of the confines of monasteries to provide the much needed ministries constantly growing in the Church and the world and still others remained secluded in their sacred places in necessary prayer and contemplation for humanity the Canons Regular of Premontre consistently and humbly have lived that tension of a contemplative life of monastic stability while responding to the needs around them through compassionate service. We never abandoned our sacred places. Rather, recognizing the immense importance of them we opened them to the world. We not only strive to allow God to touch the world through us, but we hope to allow the world to encounter God through our life and place we share.
We recognized the need to encounter the world like our more action-driven brethren that followed us. We remembered the need for a sacred place set apart like our monastic brethren that came before us.